Ya'akov Was Reciting the Shema

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Ya'akov was Reciting the Shema

Adapted by Dov Karoll


The Torah describes the meeting of Ya'akov and Yosef as follows: "He [Yosef] presented himself to him [Ya'akov], and threw himself on his shoulders, weeping on his shoulders for a long time" (46:29). Since the pronouns are unclear, Rashi (s.v. va-yevk) explains that that Yosef cried on Ya'akov's shoulders (and not vice versa), and then explains Ya'akov's actions:

Ya'akov, however, did not fall upon Yosef's shoulders, nor did he kiss him. Our Rabbis say: the reason was that he was reciting the shema.


I am not sure what Rashi's source is for the notion that Ya'akov recited the shema. (Perhaps it is from certain versions of Massekhet Derekh Eretz Zuta, 1:10, or Midrash Bereishit Zuta; see Rav M. Kasher, Torah Sheleima, Bereishit chapter 46, note 177.) But I do know that this is a very surprising idea. There is a well-known and well-based (see, e.g., the mishna in Kiddushin 82a) approach in Chazal that the avot, the patriarchs, kept the mitzvot of the Torah. But earlier in Bereishit, when God tells Yitzchak of the fact that Avraham "kept My charge, My commandments, My decrees and My laws" (26:5), Rashi explains that this verse refers to all of the negative commandments, with each phrase referring to different prohibitions. According to this idea, the avot did not violate the prohibitions the Torah, but that is not to say that Avraham put on tefillin. Why is it that Rashi mentions that Ya'akov was reciting the shema?

The Ramban (26:5, s.v. va-yishmor, at the end) offers an alternate interpretation. He explains, "in accordance with the literal meaning of Scripture, that the "charge" that Avraham kept was guarding his belief in God in his heart, the "commandments" were God's directives to him to leave his land, etc., "My statutes" refers to Avraham's performance of kindness and charity, while "My laws" refers to the observance of circumcision and the seven Noahide laws.

If we take this approach, we can understand what Rashi is speaking about here. The avot did not observe the mitzvot in the sense in which we observe them. They did not put on tefillin or shake the lulav. But they understood and appreciated the underlying messages of the mitzvot. What is the underlying theme of the recitation of the shema? It is twofold. First, the shema proclaims God's oneness. Secondly, it entails recognition of God's dominion over the world. This second theme can be seen from the fact that we cite this verse in the prayer of Malkhuyot on Rosh Hashana, where the theme is God's Kingship or dominion.

If so, what is the meaning of the claim that Ya'akov was reciting the shema when he first saw Yosef? After all the years of not understanding Yosef's true fate, after all the suffering and hardship, Ya'akov finally realizes that God's Hand had been guiding the process all along. He sees God's great role and Providence, and his first reaction on seeing Yosef is to turn to God in recognition and thanks.

This is a crucial lesson for us as well. It is important to remember that mitzvot contain these underlying themes. Of course, after Sinai we are obligated to observe the commandments in practice as well, but that does not come to negate these basic notions. Mitzvot need to be performed physically, but that does not mean that they should be performed mechanically. Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were able to intuit these basic notions, which Chazal understand as being comparable to performing the mitzvot in the time before the Torah was given. In the time after the giving of the Torah, these underlying ideas need to be integrated with practice.

Let me give you an example of this notion. Rashi's comment cited above (26:5) mentions that Avraham observed even the rabbinic requirement of eiruv tavshilin, which enables cooking on Yom Tov in preparation for Shabbat. What is the message behind eiruv tavshilin? I heard in the name of Rav Kook that the underlying notion of eiruv tavshilin is the distinction between a lesser level of sanctity and a greater level of sanctity (kedusha chamura and kedusha kalla). If so, Rashi is telling us that Avraham was so sensitive to sanctity that he could sense the difference between varying levels of sanctity (kedusha).

Throughout the generations, there have been detractors who have claimed that the only thing that is important is the message behind the mitzvot, and they have correspondingly downplayed the significance of the actual performance of mitzvot. This was true of Christianity, and it was true in a more moderate form with more recent reformers within Judaism. We unequivocally reject such an approach. However, in our battle to preserve mitzva observance, we often go too far to the opposite extreme, emphasizing performance of mitzvot to the exclusion of sensitivity to their underlying messages. We need to bear in mind that proper mitzva performance integrates both of these aspects.

[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Parashat Vayigash, 5763 (2002).]



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